Beyond 'by, with and through': Reforming America's security partnerships

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in security assistance to fragile states such as Iraq, Somalia, Niger and the Philippines. The assumption many policymakers possess in giving this assistance is simple: that by working “by, with and through” partner forces, the United States can build an enduring capacity within these states to confront mutual threats such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the inordinate amounts of blood and treasure the United States has spent in security assistance in fragile states has led to disappointing results. Today, extremist groups are more numerous, kill more people and control more territory than they did prior to 9/11. Just as concerning, strategic competitors such as China and Russia have capitalized on a distracted and overstretched U.S. military to become peer-level competitors in important technologies and regions of the world. Yet even as the United States prepares to draw down its military presence to confront these competitors, it lacks a coherent strategy for preventing the continued spread of extremism, conflict and chaos in fragile states.  

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A newly-released report of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, for which we served as advisers, steps boldly into this breach. It sets forth a paradigm for identifying, prioritizing, preventing and responding to fragile-state challenges. The report proposes a strategy centered upon “building partnerships with leaders, civil society and private-sector actors in fragile states who are committed to governing accountably as the best approach to preventing extremism.”

At the heart of the task force recommendations is a recognition that the way in which the United States has partnered with fragile states — particularly in the security sector — simply hasn’t been effective. The assumption that the United States should always work “by, with and through” partner states is overly simplistic, ignoring the crucial challenges that weak institutions and corrupt, exclusionary or predatory governance in the security sector poses to developing capable partners. As a result, security cooperation with fragile states consistently has failed either to improve partner capacity or to reduce the threat from extremists.

We believe that, for security assistance with fragile states to truly serve U.S. interests, the United States needs to cultivate more responsible partnerships. This means making improvements in the institutions that govern the security sector — and not building short-lived tactical capacities — the overriding objective of most of today’s security cooperation with fragile states. The task force recommendations provide the beginnings of an ambitious policy agenda to reform U.S. security assistance.

The task force’s report recommends three major series of reforms. First, the United States should restrict the sophistication and lethality of the security assistance it gives to states with poor security-sector governance. Security forces in fragile states that fail to demonstrate basic levels of professionalism — including merit-based promotions, ethnically-balanced forces and limited levels of corruption and human rights abuses — struggle to sustain U.S. training and capabilities. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that counterterrorism assistance provided to fragile states often has tipped the scales toward security-centric and heavy-handed approaches to governance — fostering long-term resistance to government and sympathy for extremist groups.

The United States also has learned, often the hard way, that lethal technologies provided to states without the ability or commitment to manage them often fall into disrepair or, worse, are stolen or diverted. U.S.-supplied arms have wound up in the hands of al Qaeda- or Islamic State-affiliated extremists in virtually every such conflict in which the United States has been involved. The task force recommendations would limit the riskiest types of assistance in the settings when it is most likely to be diverted or cause harm.  

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Second, the report recommends the United States adopt a compact-based model for all the security-sector assistance it gives to fragile states. Security assistance compacts would govern security assistance to fragile states in five- to 10-year increments, based on mutually agreed priorities, with oversight from civilian authorities and civil society. These best practices would ensure predictable funding, country-led ownership, and an alignment of objectives between the United States and its partners.

Importantly, a compact-based approach would induce a degree of accountability to civilians in partner governments into U.S. security assistance relationships with fragile states. Longer-term compacts will empower the interagency to partner with local civil society in designing assessment frameworks and holding security forces accountable for improvements in governance in exchange for US security assistance. In fragile states, where corruption and human rights abuses often drive recruitment into extremist organizations, sustained civilian input can help rein in counterproductive behavior and foster trust with security forces.

Third, the report recommends the United States establish  programs to better enable it to work in fragile-state settings. This includes a security-sector reform endowment, which would levy a small tax on existing military assistance to provide grant funding to reward or support partner-led efforts to reform their security sectors or build basic institutional capabilities. This would provide a steady pool of funds for partners willing to take leadership in addressing their own security-sector governance shortcomings.

Critically, each of these recommendations is situated within a broader whole-of-government framework for analyzing and acting to address fragile-state challenges. Interagency integration has been a holy grail for security-sector reform efforts over many years, and efforts such as President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 23 and recent defense authorizations have laid foundations for closer coordination and oversight. The task force provides a road map to realizing this imperative.

In the world’s most fragile states, making basic improvements in institutions governing the security sector should be the default aim of U.S. security assistance policy. The transfers of sophisticated weapons, equipment and technology to partner states should be a privilege, not a right, reserved for partners whose security sectors genuinely protect their citizens and have demonstrated an ability to meaningfully contribute to shared security objectives.

By aligning U.S. security assistance with its longer-term interests of stability and preventing extremism, the recommendations of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States will help the United States get more return on its investments and ensure that the assistance it gives aligns with the values it upholds.

Tommy Ross was the first deputy assistant secretary of Defense for security cooperation and is a senior adviser to the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Nathaniel Allen and Philip McDaniel staffed the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States as policy advisers.